Friday, 31 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival: Strauss, Zimmermann, Schumann, 31 August 2007

Usher Hall

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel
Zimmermann: Photoptosis
Schumann: Symphony no.3 in E flat major, Op.97, 'Rhenish'
Strauss: Das Rosenband, Op.36 no.1
Strauss: Morgen! Op.27 no.4
Strauss: Cäcilie, Op.27 no.2

Gabriele Fontana (soprano)
Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Markus Stenz (conductor)

The Gürzenich orchestra has much of this music in its blood; indeed, it gave the first performance, in 1895, of Till Eulenspiegel. This performance evinced a great warmth of tone, and never fell prey to the harshness that can sometimes disfigure ostensibly distinguished accounts. Especially memorable were the violas, percussion, the solo trumpet, and those most Straussian of instruments (save for the soprano voice), the horns. Markus Stenz imparted an impressive sense of narrative and characterisation, shaping a fine example of true programme music, with no sacrifice to perception of its classical rondo form. The influence of Berlioz upon Strauss's orchestration was clearly felt, never more so than in the kettledrums of excecution, which brought to mind the 'March to the Scaffold' from the Symphonie fantastique. Till Eulenspiegel is a splendid opportunity for a fine orchestra to shine, not just technically but musically too, and in both cases this orchestra passed with flying colours.

Zimmermann's Photoptosis does much the same, albeit in a very different voice. The audience was greatly assisted in its prospects of affording a sympathetic hearing to the work by Stenz's spoken introduction. His enthusiasm was so genuine, so winning, that it must have helped win a few converts, or at least open minds, to a cause that has never really caught on, at least in this country. The ravishing beauty of the 'blue' canvas, inspired by Yves Klein's monochrome wall panels in the Musiktheater im Revier, shone brightly as we, the spectators, approached. Here was narrative of a different kind to that of Till Eulenspiegel, but narrative nevertheless. We were drawn in to the drama of a single colour, a single colour in whose variation according to perspective the whole orchestra enthusiastically participated. This was Klangfarbenmelodie, not quite of Schoenberg's variety, but Klangfarbenmelodie nevertheless. The second, collage section enabled many of the quotations to be readily discerned - Stenz was surely being unduly modest in claiming only to have perceived one of them upon his first hearing of the piece - yet never at the expense of their place within the greater whole. And the orchestral virtuosity displayed during the great crescendo of the final section made for a fine marriage between the twin earlier threads of narrative and Klangfarbenmelodie. Zimmermann could hardly have wished for better advocates than Stenz and his orchestra.

After that, the Schumann symphony was less impressive. There was a noticeable vernal freshness to the performance, but it sometimes lacked gravity. This is often the way with modern, pseudo-'authentic' Schumann performances, I know, but I did not feel that the relatively small size of the orchestra, especially with regard to the strings, provided the strongest advocacy for his still-derided - at least in some quarters - orchestration. Conductors as different as Furtwängler, Kubelik, Karajan, Sawallisch, and Kubelík managed perfectly well - indeed, much better than perfectly well - without cutting the strings, and thereby reminded us what truly Romantic music this is. The strings' articulation added to a somewhat short-breathed impression, which unhelpfully highlighted Schumann's penchant for two- and four-bar phrasing. On the other hand, this became less troublesome as time went on, Stenz appearing less hidebound by the dubious pronouncements of musical 'authenticity'. The woodwind and brass sounded resplendent throughout, although a real sense of mystery was not inappropriately reserved for the opening of the 'Cologne Cathedral' movement. The tricky gear changes of the final movement, which have tripped up some very illustrious names indeed, were surely navigated, to drive the piece to a satisfying if hardly rip-roaring conclusion.

The three Strauss songs were late, 'surprise' additions, and most welcome they were too, possessing something of a less pressurised 'encore' character. Gabriele Fontana made all of the words tell, and shaped Strauss's soaring phrases with real musicianship, although the hushed quality Morgen! demands was never quite achieved. By contrast, Torsten Janicke's violin solo was heartbreaking in its melting tone. Fontana reversed the personal pronouns in Das Rosenband. Whilst hardly a matter of fundamental importance, is this any longer necessary in an age that has known - and loved - Brigitte Fassbaender's stunning Winterreise, or which, alternatively, might even amongst the ladies of Morningside accept the possibility of love between two persons of the same sex? No matter: Cäcilie provided a resplendent conclusion. The orchestra was immediately given its head, providing a fitting contrast with the restraint of Morgen! And Fontana was well placed to ride its waves. This, undoubtedly, was the finest performance of the three songs.

Edinburgh Festival: Strauss and Mahler, SFSO/Tilson Thomas, 30 August 2007

Usher Hall

Strauss: Salome - final scene

Mahler: Symphony no.7

Deborah Voigt (soprano)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

Deborah Voigt's assumption of the role of Salome, albeit for a single scene, was the finest I have heard in the flesh. Hers was superlative Strauss-singing, every phrase shaped and shaded with the care that is vital to avoid this becoming a tiresome feat of vocal display. Voigt showed herself alert to every twist and turn of the text, the music, and most importantly, the marriage of text and music. Her diction was such that one could discern every word, an achievement that is not to be taken for granted from Strauss sopranos. Moreover, although this was a concert performance, she really had assumed the role, permitting the listener's directorial imagination to transport itself wherever it would. The orchestra offered impressive support under Michael Tilson Thomas, and often rather more than that, leading where required. Balances were well calculated - and projected. All that was really lacking was a sense of truly having lived this music as a seasoned opera orchestra would, or a symphony orchestra in a great performance might somehow be able to pretend that it had. The phantasmagorical display of colours and harmonic shocks could not entirely remove the sense that this was a 'showpiece' rather than the culmination of a drama. Voigt largely had to shoulder that responsibility herself. One grumble: it might be claimed that it would have been prohibitively expensive to engage singers for the lines allotted to Herod and Herodias, but one does miss them, and no one would consider omitting an important orchestral line in similar fashion. Without that chilling, gloriously melodramatic final line from Herod - 'Man töte dieses Weib! - the final bars lose some at least of their dramatic motivation. (I know that we all too often endure performances of the 'Immolation Scene' without Hagen, but that is no excuse.)

It was an ambitious programme, to say the least, which coupled the final scene from Salome with Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Once again, the orchestra was on excellent technical form, which should not be taken wholly for granted: I recall a deeply unimpressive Proms performance a few years ago from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ivan Volkov. Tilson Thomas clearly has ideas about what may well be the most problematical of Mahler's symphonies, and knows moreover how to put them into practice. His reading was certainly interventionist, though never narcissistically so. It married something of the bracing modernist coloration of Pierre Boulez with the 'house of horrors' scenario Leonard Bernstein so memorably portrayed in his Deutsche Grammphon recording with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The extraordinary surprise of Daniel Barenboim's route, assimilating the work to the great symphonic tradition, was not taken here, but Barenboim's appears so far to be a singular approach, which may not benefit from imitation. There were occasions when I thought Tilson Thomas lingered a little too much, perhaps above all during the second Nachtmusik movement, which can easily overstay its welcome. And there was something of a stop-go character to some progressions, which did not quite seem worked out as it might have done in the kind of post-Adornian, glorying-in-incoherence sensibility that Boulez brings to the work. The orchestra improved as the work went on. Brass and percussion were superb throughout, as were the violas, who shone whenever Mahler allowed them to do so. However, the other strings sometimes sounded a little thin, anonymous even, until the third movement at least. The first two movements were also somewhat marred by insensitive playing from the middle woodwind instruments - oboes and clarinets - whose phrasing was curiously unshaped, or even absent. They appeared to up their game later on, to match the most impressive flute playing from which we had benefited throughout. This was a good but not great Mahler performance. Unfortunately, the general level of Mahler performance from conductors as different as Boulez, Abbado, Haitink, and on occasion Barenboim and Rattle, is now so high that one notices more than one otherwise might, just how much apparently fine gradations can matter.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival: Capriccio, 28 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Countess - Gabriele Fontana; Count - Ashley Holland; Flamand - Hauke Möller; Olivier - Johannes Beck; La Roche - Michael Eder; Clairon - Dalia Schaechter; M. Taupe - Johannes Preissinger; Italian soprano - Katharina Leyhe; Italian tenor - Ray M. Wade, Jr; Major-Domo - Ulrich Hielscher; Dancer - Luisa Sancho Escanero

Christian von Götz (director); Cologne Opera; Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne; Markus Stenz (conductor)

Is there a more violently controversial composer than Richard Strauss? The answer would surely be yes: Wagner at the very least is, as for very different reasons is Schoenberg. However, I am not so sure that this should be the case. Strauss leads us to ask very difficult questions; or rather, we ought to ask such questions: aesthetic, political, and moral. Wagner, on the other hand, is often made to answer for questions based upon misrepresentation. Stravinsky levelled the charge that Strauss 'didn't give a damn', and one can certainly end up feeling manipulated by a composer who might just be note-spinning, who cynically appears to know which buttons to press rather than 'believing' in what he is doing. Henze has gone further, writing: 'Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress. As with Marxism, his goal is not God but Man, whereas there are other artists who have never given a thought to the moral function of their work; for instance Richard Strauss, who is for me – perhaps I’m going too far – something like a court composer to Kaiser Wilhelm II.' The charge comes to seem even more serious when one considers Strauss's later career, and the fraught, unavoidable question of his relationship towards the Third Reich. This does not mean that it is our place to put him on trial, still less to transform him into a hero along the lines of Schoenberg or Furtwängler. It remains, however, a legitimate, indeed necessary, question to ask what it might mean to pen an apparently escapist conversation piece such as Capriccio in the darkness of 1942.

The reality, as producer Christian von Götz so ably demonstrated, is that Capriccio is intimately connected with political reality, and this heightens rather than detracts from the aesthetic disputes at its core. In one of the archetypal operas about the making of an opera, it is more than usually appropriate to add another narrative layer, in which the era of the making of Capriccio itself features. Our first sight, disturbingly set against a beautiful reading of the opening string sextet, was of the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs-Elysées. The opera therefore remained in France, somewhere outside Paris. And the bulk of the action, Capriccio's creation of an opera as opposed to the production's creation of Capriccio, took place in eighteenth-century costume: a final house party, in which the coming of the Gestapo might be put out of mind for a couple of hours. Is this what Strauss himself was doing? Perhaps, although more on that anon. There were from time to time reminders of approaching fate, which grew more numerous in the second act. (This was Joseph Keilberth's two-act adaptation.) Every aspect of the production, be it 'political' or 'aesthetic', showed the dichotomy to be false and worked inexorably towards the denouement: the Count's preparation of a cyanide capsule, the last vain attempt to answer the vexed question of words or music, and perhaps most chillingly of all, the prompter, Monsieur Taupe, replete with his yellow star, being left behind by the departure of the main party and offered his own carriage 'home'.

The final scene thus depicted the Countess saying farewell. Who knew when or indeed whether she would ever return after being escorted to the railway station? And yet, there was another, equally important side to what was going on. Radiantly sung by Gabriele Fontana, who had made an extraordinary recovery from a less than impressive first act, Strauss's music offered some sense of hope, 'utopian' in a sense Ernst Bloch might have understood, against this terrible backdrop. Whether the hope were vain or even irresponsible remained unanswered, at least explicitly. Yet just as surely as music always wins out against the words - witness the glory of the closing music as against the banality of the Major-Domo's announcement that supper is served - so here did art, the entirety of its enterprise, including music, words, and theatre, against its surrounding evil. This was not to speak of an unequivocal victory, which would be illusory and would therefore ultimately prove to be nothing more than capitulation to the horrors of fascism: monopoly capitalism's emergency strategy. Yet the music of the final scene, some of the most heartrending Strauss ever wrote - for here, as in Metamorphosen, and a few other works, the mask does seem to drop to reveal the real human being - becomes all the more moving when it confronts rather than retreats from evil.

This production understood that dialectical truth only too well - unlike a woman whom I heard leaving the theatre asking 'How was the opera supposed to be connected to National Socialism?' She exhibited either extraordinary stupidity or outrageous disingenuousness, but was not, I suspect, untypical of the largely bourgeois audience that would have wished only to be 'entertained'. Thankfully, the artists involved worked together to honour La Roche's pledge to 'serve the eternal requirements of the theatre,' to grant it 'neue Gesetze - neuen Inhalt!', in the search for the 'genialischen Werke unserer Zeit'. Michael Eder's performance of La Roche's great justification of the theatre was impressively handled, as were all of the varied contributions to the difficult second act, full of virtuoso ensemble writing. For whilst few of the vocal performances, individually taken, would sear themselves onto one's memory, there was a true, heartening sense of collective effort, of a fine company.

At the very heart of this, of course, stood the orchestra, which played finely throughout, and justly proved itself the most important 'character' of all. Markus Stenz conjured an echt-Straussian glow from the strings, nobility from the brass, and wonderfully piquant contributions from the woodwind, never more so than in the Rosenkavalier-recollections of the final scene (another layer of ironic memory). The clarity, propulsion, and overall coherence of the ensembles, not least the celebrated octet, reminded us that Così fan tutte was Strauss's favourite Mozart opera, and heightened the pervading sense of elegy. Edinburgh and Cologne served Strauss well, which is to say truthfully and without evasion.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival: Christine Brewer and Roger Vignoles, 28 August 2007

Queen's Hall

Strauss: Ich liebe dich, Op.37 no.2
Strauss: Breit über mein Haupt, Op.19 no.2
Strauss: Die Georgine, Op.10 no.4
Strauss: Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland, Op.56 no.6
Strauss: Befreit, Op.39 no.4

Wolf: Vier Mignon Lieder

Britten: Cabaret Songs

John Carter: Cantata

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Roger Vignoles (piano)

Christine Brewer is celebrated for her Strauss, and not only in the opera house. Her recent disc with Roger Vignoles for Hyperion has gathered many plaudits. The opening group of songs gave an opportunity to consider further this growing reputation. Her apparently endless reserves of breath ensured that maintaining and shaping long phrases was never a problem and her diction was excellent. Moments of intimacy, however, were fewer than one might have expected; I rather had the impression that Brewer would have been better matched by an orchestra. Moreover, whilst Vignoles accompanied provided adept accompaniment, the piano part also lacked the sense of insights won from a seasoned partnership. This seemed to be almost the stereotypical Lieder-recital -by-an-'opera-singer', albeit one with great command over her awesome vocal reserves. Indeed, I missed the orchestra in 'Die heiligen drei Könige', in which the lengthy postlude sounded rather matter of fact on the piano. Vignoles doubtless had his reasons for not lingering, but the piano part did sound a little too much like the transcription that it is. The violin trills that depict, with such knowing naïveté, the infant Christ's crying either do not transfer very well to the piano or did not do so on this occasion.

But maybe nerves had been at play, for matters improved with Wolf's great Mignon Lieder. All four songs are so beautifully proportioned, for which we must thank both Wolf and Goethe, and these proportions were well served by readings attentive to formal as well as verbal concerns. Brewer seemed to respond more readily to the narrative context of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, enabling Vignoles to follow suit with less generalised accompaniment. Whilst the tendencies present in the Strauss songs had not disappeared completely, a greater readiness to respond to the shifts and turns in Wolf's alchemic blend of words and music exhibited itself as the group progressed, rendering the delectable 'Kennst du das Land' most moving. When Brewer asked, at the opening of the second stanza, 'Kennst du das Haus?' her hushed tone conveyed just the right sense of confiding consolation. Her full vocal strength would then be employed for a well-judged and never-strained climax at the third 'Dahin! Dahin!', before subsiding for the final line, both drawing back and urging Mignon's father on: 'Geht unser Weg! o Vater, lass uns ziehn!'

I felt nevertheless - perhaps surprisingly for a singer so steeped in the vocal works of German Romanticism - that Brewer was much more at ease in the English-language items of the second half. There was no longer any communicative barrier between singer and audience, which may partly have been a product of the audience's comprehension of the texts. She proved a witty, winning 'hostess' in the Britten-Auden Cabaret Songs, which might easily have seemed merely 'clever'. There was not only an impressive dynamic range but a quicksilver flexibility largely absent from the Strauss songs and only intermittently present in the Wolf items. Once again, this seemed also to apply to Vignoles, who must, I imagine, have been taking his cues from the singer.

John Carter's Cantata is a shaping of four Negro spirituals into the shape of a pseudo-Baroque cantata: Prelude/Rondo ('Peter go ring dem bells'), Recitative ('Sometimes I feel like a motherless child'), Air ('Let us break bread together'), and Toccata ('Ride on King Jesus'), although the designations seem somewhat arbitrary. The composer added a busy and ever-so-mildly 'wrong-note' piano part. Brewer, in her brief introduction, admitted to a longstanding devotion to these songs in their original form, having sung them so often at home as a child. She certainly seemed to sing from the heart, and once again communicated vividly, rising to a splendid climax on the held-note at the end of the final 'Toccata'. Vignoles shaped his part considerately yet with requisite vigour when required. It would be difficult to remain unmoved by the circumstances of the piece: Carter is believed dead, perhaps on account of suicide, but nobody knows where the sometime composer-in-residence of the National Symphony Orchestra may be. Nevertheless, my reaction was along the lines of: if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Prom 55: Wagner and Debussy (Haitink)

25 August 2007

Wagner - Parsifal: Prelude to Act I and 'Good Friday Music'
Debussy - Nocturnes
Debussy (orch. Rudolf Escher) - Six épigraphes antiques
Wagner - Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and 'Liebestod'

Tenebrae (women's voices)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

What are we to do about Wagnerian 'bleeding chunks'? Ever since Sir Donald Tovey coined the phrase, and arguably before that, there has been some doubt concerning the appropriateness of performing sections of Wagner's music-dramas out of context, especially when this involves omission of vocal lines. Probably the best course of action is pragmatic: if something works, it does, and if not, leave it well alone, whilst always bearing in mind that one may be doing Wagner less than justice and in some cases even violence.There seem to be few if any problems with a concert performance of the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger; with these Parsifal excerpts, I am less sure. The Prelude to Act I is so much a prelude to what follows, a necessary preparation that can only lead in one direction, that it cannot produce anything like the effect it would in prefacing the drama. Fair enough, one might say; in which case, treat it simply as a concert overture. This might work in theory, although I cannot recall an utterly convincing example. Do we not treasure even Furtwängler's reading above all since we lack a recording of the entire work? However, there was little sense here of a self-standing piece, or even of one which made more sense alongside the 'Good Friday Music'. This is mere speculation, of course, but I wondered whether Bernard Haitink's current preoccupation with Parsifal - he has recently conducted the work in Geneva, and will return to Covent Garden to do so in December - inclined him to hear the music simply as it would be in a reading of the entire drama. The 'Good Friday Music' in particular might well have worked perfectly well in the opera house - with voices - but here it really did seem a 'bleeding chunk'. The orchestra sounded fine for the most part, but on occasion did sound a little drab. We could have done with far more of the Debussian sense of being 'lit from behind'. There was nothing especially 'wrong', but electricity and luminosity were not in abundant supply. It pains me to say so, since there can hardly be a greater admirer of Haitink's Wagner than I, but this was not a memorable account.

Not to worry: matters improved thereafter. Haitink and the Concertgebouw have a long track record in Debussy, their 1979 recording of the Nocturnes having garnered awards. The balance between the three movements was expertly judged, as if one were dealing with a three-movement symphony. Nuages seemed to grow out of the sounds of late Wagner, but with more attention paid to colour. Liszt's extraordinary late piano piece, Nuages gris, much admired by Debussy, also sprang to mind as a source. But the sound was all Debussy's own. Haitink has never been a conductor to exhibit the laser-like clarity of Boulez in such repertoire - or indeed in any other repertoire - but one could hear everything that was going on, especially the delightful woodwind, without any loss of atmosphere. The rhythmic assuredness of Fêtes had almost the implacability of Ravel, again without losing the impressionistic ambiguity so personal to Debussy. Antiphonal placing of the women's voices paid dividends in Sirènes, and once again the woodwind, not least the English horn, shone, as did the beautiful muted trumpets. One could have lingered forever with these dangerous siren sounds, but then that is the point. All I missed was a hint more of Wagner from the strings, which sounded uncharacteristically lean. A little more refulgence would not have gone amiss, although one might well argue that they sounded all the more 'French' for this.

Rudolf Escher's orchestration of the Six épigraphes antiques was also well performed. I am not convinced that the orchestration is quite the last word, although it appears to have become quite popular. It neither sounds quite like original Debussy - how could it? - nor like an imaginative re-creation in a personal voice of the composer's own. The seductive combination of flute and harp is perhaps a little over-used. Still, both orchestration and performance gave some sense of the music's origin in incidental music (to a recitation of poems by Pierre Louÿs), whose material was then reused in the relatively well-known work for piano duet. At the risk of unbearable repetitiveness, this item once allowed the woodwind to exhibit great beauty and individuality of tone.

Fine though the Debussy items were, the climax came with the Tristan excerpts, and with the so-called 'Liebestod' in particular. (The term comes from Liszt, in his piano transcription, not Wagner, who favoured Verklärung, 'transfiguration'. Still, we appear stuck with 'Liebestod', so best not to complain unduly...) Here, Haitink's experience with the work in the theatre - who could ever forget his magnificent account during his last season as Music Director at Covent Garden? - worked dividends. One loses much, of course, by only having the opening and the conclusion, but there was here perhaps enough distancing too, to allow the music to emerge on its own terms. There was never any doubt of the inevitability of where it was heading (Furtwängler's fabled Fernhören), save for the slight awkwardness of transition between Prelude and 'Liebestod'. Nothing can be done about that really, for the two do not really belong together, as Tovey pointed out. Here at last the strings shimmered with the vibrato of Nietzsche's 'voluptuousness of Hell', with no sacrifice in terms of the rest of the orchestral playing, which was uniformly superb. Haitink's wisdom shone through in the marvellously judged ebb and flow. If the climaxes were not so shattering as they might have been in the theatre, here they benefited from his expert musical shaping. There was never any question of transforming the music into an orchestral showpiece; in that, I was reminded of Claudio Abbado's Mahler Third a few nights earlier. It may be a forlorn hope, but we must fervently hope nevertheless that Haitink will once again have and take the opportunity to conduct the entire work. Responding to the warmth of the reception that will surely always be his in London, Haitink then allowed the orchestra to show off in a blazing encore: the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Prom 51: Mahler's Third Symphony (Abbado)

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no.3 in D minor

22 August 2007

Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano)
Trinity Boys' Choir
London Symphony Chorus
Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Claudio Abbado (conductor)

This was always going to be a special Prom, and so it turned out. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra is a unique organisation, its nucleus being the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (also founded by Claudio Abbado), its principals some of the world's finest solo and chamber musicians, joining the orchestra in order to work with Abbado. That musicians of the calibre of Kojla Blacher, Wolfram Christ, Clemens and Veronika Hagen, Jacques Zoon, Sabine Meyer, and Reinhold Friedrich are willing to do this is testament to Abbado's personal and musical standing. It is also a direct consequence of his very particular way of making music. In many ways, he is an encourager, a facilitator of chamber music writ large; in no sense is he a podium dictator. Allowing his musicians the initiative to try out their own ideas has always been important to Abbado; the results were to be heard during this Prom.

The last performance I had attended was that given by Boulez and the Staatskapelle Berlin in the April Mahler-Zyklus. That was a commanding reading indeed, although the orchestra made a few more slips than one might have expected. Nevertheless, Boulez's structural authority was stamped upon every bar. Here, the orchestra, doubtless aided by the almost unlimited rehearsal
time that its special circumstances permit, was closer to perfection in terms of execution, although there were a very few, very minor slips (for instance, rather surprisingly, during the posthorn solo). More importantly, this sounded - and I hope I am not unduly romanticising, given my knowledge of Abbado's orchestral philosophy - as though the basic sound and flow emanated from the orchestra, which Abbado could then shape, or not, as necessary. A sense of chamber music, however vast the canvas, informed the performance, never more so than in the final Adagio, in which one could have been speaking of an augmented (vastly augmented, mind) string quartet. That is fair enough, given the four-part string harmony upon which the movement is based. Put like this, Abbado's might seem the preferable path; it is certainly a thing of wonder. However, I am not quite so sure. Mahler himself was after all a conductor of the old school, and was utterly unashamed to put his stamp on proceedings. This is conductor's music, whether the conductor be a musician as different as a Boulez or a Bernstein. Both conductors, in their very different ways, have made this symphony theirs, whilst remaining true to its spirit. One might with justice say that, in his more self-effacing, yet utterly musicianly, way, Abbado does the same - and I think that would be the right thing to say. Ultimately, I think that one's judgement - perhaps 'opinion' would be better - is a personal matter, when one is dealing with music-making at this level. However, I was not quite so overwhelmed by Abbado's reading as I had been by that of Boulez. (The vastly superior acoustic of the Berlin Philharmonie as compared to the Royal Albert Hall may have played a role too.)

The great drama of the first movement unfolded with inevitability, though I am sure this was an inevitability only won through prolonged study and immersion in the score. The numerous and varied happenings as 'Summer marches in', from the opening not-Brahms horn calls, through the twitterings of nature, to the concluding cataclysm of the militaristic brass fanfares, were all sharply characterised, yet part of a greater whole. It rather felt like watching the different stages of a great procession: those anxious souls from the final movement of the Second Symphony's Day of Judgement sprang to mind. Rarely if ever has the 'natural' - in fact highly 'artificial' - beauty of the minuet sounded quite so melting. I recalled that Abbado is a great conductor of the so-called 'Impressionism' of Debussy, and there was something of that spirit here: never imprecise, though, but full of shimmering strings and woodwind, and utterly flexible. It seems invidious to single out any one soloist, but Jacques Zoon's magic flute was just that, its purity of tone as refreshing as water from a mountain spring. The contrasts of the third movement, between the cryings of the animals of the forest, and the sudden appearances of new, yet old metaphysical vistas - the nostalgic posthorn - were heart-stopping. When it came to the great climax - Pan's self-revelation? - Abbado was slightly restrained, but there was no need to milk the moment any more. On its own terms, this worked perfectly.

In the fourth movement, Anna Larsson proved as fine a soloist for Abbado as she had for his Berlin Philharmonic recording (actually taped live at the Royal Festival Hall). Every word of Nietzsche's text was audible - but this was about far more than fine diction. Her shading was ever attentive to the verbal and musical nuances of the composite text of words and music (the two do not always fit so perfectly together). Abbado was, of course, supremely supportive, apparently following her rather than the other way round, although I suspect that there was in fact a great deal of give and take on both sides. The oases of stillness, never without their Nietzschean danger, were never overdone, but once again fitted into the symphony's indomitable progression. (How could William Walton, quoted in the programme notes, ever have thought of saying 'It's all very well, but you can't call that a symphony'? I hardly need add that history has tended to judge Mahler's symphonies as a little more consequential than his...)

The transition to the magical fifth movement was handled seamlessly: not in the sense of actually being run together, but quite correctly, as the ascent to the next level in the cosmic hierarchy, from 'What night tells me (man)' to 'What the morning bells tell me (angels)'. The choral contributions could hardly be faulted, and the lightness of touch was almost that of a Mendelssohn scherzo. (It is probably no coincidence that Abbado has always been such a great conductor of Mendelssohn.) This brief movement was thus perfectly judged to prepare us for the final 'What loves tell me', that is the realm of God Himself.

Like Boulez in April, Abbado took the Adagio relatively swiftly, but in neither case was this precipitately so. The ebb and flow, as I mentioned earlier, was that of chamber music, as opposed to Boulez's more overtly Wagnerian approach. The richness of the strings was exemplary, although here as throughout, I might have preferred a little more bass. That is 'fundamental' to Mahler in every sense, as Bernard Haitink has always shown. The tremulous beauty of Reinhold Friedrich's trumpet line could hardly have been better judged in its subtle vibrato. I certainly did not feel short-changed: this was a very fine performance. If, as I said, ultimately Boulez came closer to 'my' Mahler, then I am making a personal claim more than anything else. Abbado and his orchestra readily deserved the extended applause they received.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Armida, 18 August 2007

Joseph Haydn: Armida

Annette Dasch - Armida
Michael Schade - Rinaldo
Mocja Erdmann - Zelmira
Vito Priante - Idreno
Richard Croft - Ubaldo
Bernard Richter - Clotarco

Christof Loy (director)

Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (director)

Armida was perhaps the most important Salzburg production of 2007. This is not necessarily to say that it was the best; I am not qualified to say, only having seen four of the eight operas presented this year. But to stage with such justified confidence an opera by Haydn, arguably his finest, is a laudable thing indeed. Haydn's operas have been ignored for far too long, especially when one considers some of the highly dubious works from which the opera-goer can hardly escape. Haydn is not Mozart, of course, but then who is? His operas are full of musical interest and, whilst they lack Mozart's genius for characterisation, they are far from undramatic. Armida is certainly a superior work to any of Handel's bafflingly ubiquitous operas, which, whatever their intermittent musical finery, remain, with the possible exception of Giulio Cesare in Egitto, inherently undramatic. (Handel's great oratorios are another matter entirely.) But even Haydn's other music rarely draws in the crowds. It was something of a risk, then, for Jürgen Flimm to launch his tenure as Intendant with Armida, which had opened the Festival on 28 July. I am delighted to report from the final performance that the risk paid off handsomely. Flimm was clearly delighted too, since he ran onto the stage to present flowers not only to the singers but also to a good number of the Bewegungschor.

Ivor Bolton directed a strong musical performance. One might have wanted more tenderness at times, but Bolton knew where he was going, and took orchestra and singers with him. Structures were clearly and dramatically perceptible, and rhythms were securely pointed. I could not help but wonder, however, what magic a great Haydn conductor might have worked; still, we always have the old Dorati recording, with Jessye Norman et al. The woodwind of the Mozarteum Orchestra sounded as delectable as ever, and the strings for the most part avoided the harshness that has sometimes affected their tone in recent years. The one great mistake was to have the 'military' music played as if it were being heard on the radio, through loudspeakers. It simply sounded tame: more 'Listen with Mother' than a janissary threat. Perhaps it was Christof Loy's idea; from wherever the idea sprang, it should have been rejected.

Annette Dasch was most impressive in the title role. Not only was her line absolutely secure, she also proved herself a fine stage acrobat. Michael Schade was, if anything, even better as Rinaldo. (I must confess that I do not understand why the opera is not named after him; he seems the central character in every way.) Sweetness of tone was allied to the vacillating virility that is the character's dramatic hallmark. Not for a minute did he flag; the promise of his first, virtuosically militaristic aria, 'Vado a pugnar contento', was upheld and developed throughout the work.

Casting of the opera's three tenors had been conducted imaginatively. As revealed in the programme, three generations of singers had been chosen, so as to suggest Clotarco as the young Rinaldo, and Ubaldo as what he would become. This worked very well on stage, without hammering home the point. Richard Croft ably depicted the ambiguities of the commander Ubaldo, whilst the young Bernard Richter shone as Clotarco. He combined great beauty of tone with great strength, which he used sparingly to all the greater effect. I rather wished he had had more to sing, for his aria, 'Ah si plachi il fiero Nume' was a definite musical highlight. He looked every inch the brave yet sensitive soldier too. Mojca Erdmann employed a wealth of seductive wiles to tempt him from the Crusaders. Faced with a voice such as hers, one could well understand Clotarco's desertion, if indeed desertion it be: positive choice of love over war might be the apter description. And real love it did seem to be, from their heartfelt portrayal. In a very real sense, theirs was the more impressive tale. Vito Priante convincingly presented Idreno as the equally ambiguous counterpart to the 'Christian' Ubaldo.

Christof Loy's production was rather as one might have expected. Everything was very stylish, perhaps sometimes a little too much so. Trench coats were rather tiresomely in evidence; is it possible for a self-respecting piece of Regietheater to eschew them? And Ubaldo, as one might have predicted, sported Pinochet-like dark glasses and was confined to a wheelchair. Otherwise, abstraction was the general order of the day, with Armida's forest of enchantment represented by planks of wood rather than anything specifically magical. This did not really matter, since music can evoke far better than naturalistic scenery. The movement of the principals was well managed, as was Jochen Heckmann's choreography of the athletic Bewegungschor, who gave a very strong sense of the military world impinging upon the psychological. Good use was made of the wonderful space of the Felsenreitschule, which really drew the audience into the drama, whilst at the same time preserving a necessary distance.

This, as I said, was an extremely important production. It would be a splendid thing were it now to be seen elsewhere; it would be an even more splendid thing were it to lead to further productions. The world needs to know what a fine opera Armida is, and to allow itself to be further beguiled by more of Haydn's operatic riches.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Le nozze di Figaro, 17 August 2007

Gerald Finley - Count Almaviva
Dorothea Röschmann - Countess Almaviva
Luca Pisaroni - Figaro
Jennifer O'Loughlin - Susanna
Martina Janková - Cherubino
Marie McLaughlin - Marcellina
Franz-Josef Selig - Bartolo
Patrick Henckens - Basilio
Oliver Ringelhahn - Don Curzio
Eva Liebau - Barbarina
Gabor Bretz - Antonio
Uli Kirsch - Cherubim

Claus Guth (director)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

This was a Marriage of Figaro without comedy, set in a claustrophobic Ibsen-like house. It was a Figaro which, owing to wrenching from its context, lost most of its class conflict. It was a Figaro in which humanity did not so much take a back seat as simply vanished. It was a Figaro whose sets and costumes remained resolutely monochrome. It was a Figaro in which the dry recitatives were prolonged to two or three times their usual length. It was a Figaro in which the conductor and orchestra occasionally departed company from the singers. It was a Figaro of nightmares; indeed, it seemed both to depict and to be a nightmare.

And yet ... it worked. Had anyone described it to me, I should have recoiled in horror. Somehow, this anti-Figaro provided a truly compelling dramatic experience. And so, though it pains me once again to be paying more attention to the production than the music, it truly is justified here. Claus Guth presented one of the best examples of Regietheater I have ever seen. What sounds perverse, to say the least, was thought through to the end. It did not grate against Mozart's music, nor even for the most part Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto; instead, it turned their usual - and 'correct - understanding on its head, and created anew. 'Please do not try this at home,' might be useful advice; but the most fizzingly champagne-like of operas was transformed into a harrowing, even sadistic drama, which came closer to the devastating hyper-realism of Così fan tutte.

As Guth turned the dramatic screw ever harder, we understood not only his Countess, an hysteric on her way to becoming Elektra, but also, perversely, Mozart's incarnation of forgiveness. As Figaro lost his focal place to Cherubino and his alter ego, the silent yet ever-active anti-cupid-Cherubim, we understood Mozart's Figaro all the better and also understood the alternatives his and Da Ponte's tightly-constructed drama could nevertheless be interpreted as having left hanging. A truly nasty 'Non piú andrai' chilled one to the bone, as Figaro and his master (in more than one sense?) played sado-masochistically with Cherubino. Susanna, who had certainly been conducting an affair with the Count, became a truly manipulative minx - but then in a sense she always had been. To shed her winsomeness was not all loss.

This would not have worked without excellent dramatic performances. Luca Pisaroni played his initially enfeebled but increasingly strengthened role to a tee. Physically and vocally, there was real danger in this Figaro. Gerald Finley was the very incarnation of dark masculinity as Almaviva. I found Dorothea Röschmann less impressive as the Countess; she appears to have acquired a considerable wobble in her voice. Yet she entered with gusto into this perversion of the role as almost universally understood. And special mention should go to the late substitute for a substitute, Jennifer O'Loughlin as Susanna. After what seemed like a few initial nerves, one would never know have known that she had not been performing the role all along. There was not a weak performance on stage. The greatest surprise, and this is truly to the musicians' credit, was that the moment of the Countess's quasi-divine forgiveness none the less won through. It is not that we had forgotten the rest of the performance, but a chink of Figaro as we knew it shone through, as it had to. The director was wise enough to permit this, and thus clinched his dramatic triumph.

The Vienna Philharmonic played throughout like angels - and yet also took the dramatic renversement in their stride. Aided by Daniel Harding's direction, the orchestra could sound brusque and threatening, though never ugly, when required. Harding's direction of the recitatives was at one with Guth's dramatic conception; this was more the recounting of an Ibsen drama, less the fleeting passage of the supreme opera buffa, than one would ever have imagined possible. I suspect that this may have been at least in part an inheritance from Nikolaus Harnoncourt's direction last year. If the truth be told, Harding's reading would have sounded jejune out of context, for instance on an audio recording; yet there was an encouraging synergy between pit and director, which should not go unremarked. Not all of his mood-swing variations of tempo worked. When unduly exaggerated, they sounded like a bad parody of Mengelberg. However, when they did work, they added to the bizarre success of this quite remarkable production.

Salzburg Festival: Maurizio Pollini, 16 August 2007

Schumann - Allegro in B minor, Op.8
Schumann - Kreisleriana: Acht Fantasien, Op.16

Chopin: Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.45
Chopin: Ballade no.2 in F major, Op.38
Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op.27
Chopin: Scherzo no.3 in C sharp minor, Op.39
Chopin: Grande Polonaise brilliante in A flat major, Op.53

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Maurizio Pollini's recitals in the Grosses Festspielhaus appear to have become an annual fixture - and rightly so, for a Pollini recital is always an event. This is not simply a matter of pianism or indeed musicianship, straightforwardly understood. Pollini certainly has at least as good a claim as anyone else to be considered the greatest living pianist, and if pushed, I should probably opt for him in that futile pursuit of ranking. But his programming, rather like that of Boulez, has always been a joy and a revelation in itself. A case in point would be last year's Salzburg recital, in which he illuminated late Mozart solo works with the crystalline beauty of Webern's Variations, Op.27, and the Boulez Second Piano Sonata's violent confrontation with and Aufhebung of the great Classical tradition, including both Mozart and Webern. This recital of Schumann and Chopin might seem less dramatic in such terms, but the thoughtfulness of his choices became ever clearer, without needing to be spelled out.

At the core of the programme, and of Pollini's performance, lay Schumann's musical and psychological dialectic between Florestan and Eusebius. There are doubtless many ways in which this could be expressed, but given its more or less explicit presence in the Kreisleriana, it seems especially apt. Fiery passion and inward self-searching are not in fact opposites, but mutually reinforcing products of the relationship between passion and intellect, which shapes not only the music of Schumann and Chopin, but also Pollini's response to it.

Pollini is one of the very few musicians to champion the Allegro, Op.8. In its progression from B minor to B major, it might seem to ape the classical Beethoven progression from darkness to light. In a sense it does, but already the state of tonality seems more blurred than in many of Beethoven's masterpieces. There is also already that sense of fragility and even breakdown which would become more manifest in late Schumann. Pollini's touch, in succession and sometimes even at once both crystalline and achingly tender, never yielded to the urge to sentimentalise. One would hardly expect this from him, but it is worth remarking upon, given some of the exhibitionistic excesses visited upon Romantic piano music. Kreisleriana continued in similar vein, with the added quality of sharply focused characterisation. Here was fought out the battle between Florestan and Eusebius, between Schumann's inner creative and destructive demons, between Classical formalism and wild-eyed Romanticism. Pollini's astonishing technical accomplishment, not least in the tricky lower registers of the keyboard, might have been expected, but that is no reason to take it for granted.

Chopin is not Schumann, of course, although the relationship between the two composers is fascinating. So these Schumannesque battles had to be subtly transposed to a different, yet related plane. Pollini, whatever his gainsayers might claim, has always been at his very best in Chopin, and this was no exception. The inner mystery of the Nocturnes was revealed in spell-binding fashion. Such were the infinite variety and gentleness of his touch, that one could almost fancy oneself in a Debussian world of piano without hammers. Not that the sterner moments went for nothing, far from it, as we discovered even more in the F major Ballade and C sharp minor Scherzo. These were tours de force of virtuoso pianism, but they were also great dramas, and the swift mood changes of the Ballade in particular were made to tell, without exaggerated point-scoring. As with the Schumann pieces, one could perceive that the moods were in some sense different perceptions or conceptions of the same musical Idea, not least since the structures were so clearly delineated. Just because Chopin's structures are not those of the Classical masters does not mean that they are not to be observed; indeed, this makes it all the more imperative that they be perceived. This was a great recital indeed, one that excited, provoked, and moved. So did the three encores: the 'Raindrop' Prelude, the 'Revolutionary' Study, and the G minor Ballade. The Ballade was played last, and provided the most thrilling peroration imaginable.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Benvenuto Cellini, 15 August 2007

Benvenuto Cellini - Burkhard Fritz
Fieramosca - Laurent Nouari
Giacomo Balducci - Brindley Sherratt
Pope Clemens VII - Mikhail Petrenko
Teresa - Mija Kovalvska
Ascanio - Kate Aldrich
Francesco - Xavier Mas
Bernardino - Roberto Tagliavini
Pompeo - Adam Plachetka
Innkeeper - Sung-Keun Park

Phillip Stölzl (director)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Valery Gergiev (conductor)

We cannot say that we were not warned. The Festival's publicity trumpeted director Phillip Stölzl's background in pop music videos, advertising, and cinema. Stölzl trumpeted his belief in a programme interview that 'the cultural perception of my generation is very strongly related to film no matter what'. And this is what we got: a panoply of projection and special effects, introduced by a cinematic title screen. Some of this worked well enough; the carnival and forging scenes were undeniably thrilling.

Yet the whole 'show' - the word seems unusually appropriate in this case - sometimes degenerated into what Wagner accused Meyerbeer of creating: 'effect without cause'. (Nietzsche turned the accusation round onto Wagner, utterly unjustly, but therein lies a different tale.) Now it might be claimed that Benvenuto Cellini is not an inappropriate case for such treatment, that it was written for Paris after all, and may even qualify as grand opera. And is not grand opera a forerunner of the movies? Well, the latter may be the case - Adorno once said as much - but as for the rest: the most charitable answer must be 'not really'. Cellini is an extraordinary work, drawing inspiration from a range of sources one might have thought incompatible, but Les Huguenots it is not, still less Aida (thank God!) Even at this stage of his career, long before the neo-Gluckian Les Troyens, the Romanticism in Berlioz thrives on the dialectic with his Classicism.

Moreover, some aspects of the stage action were simply bizarre, detracting from whatever coherence the basic approach might have yielded. Why on earth was there a walking vacuum cleaner during Teresa's Act I romance? Why did Stölzl's 'post-futuristic Rome' - whatever that might mean - look more like New York? (We do have cinema in Europe, I think.) Perhaps most bafflingly of all, why was Ascanio a robot? As for the Pope, he resembled Willy Wonka, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, regaled by some very odd male dancers. To say that the Pope's presentation jarred with the dignity of Berlioz's music, so very different from that written for other characters, would be the understatement of the year. It was very 'all-singing, all-dancing', and doubtless entertained many in the audience, but to what dramatic end? I have no idea. If this were a way of demonstrating the empty banality of modern popular culture, there were surely better and certainly cheaper ways of doing this. However, I think it may actually have been a celebration of such trash: in which case, might we not leave Berlioz out of it?

It is not usually my practice to concentrate so heavily upon the production, but this hardly gave one a choice. One was treated like an infant with an attention span of a few seconds, since so much had to be 'going on' all of the time. This may be how one produces a pop video, but in the theatre less is usually more. The music was almost relegated to the status of a soundtrack. It was brilliantly, if breathlessly, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Gergiev. He could do with learning some lessons from his predecessor at the LSO, Sir Colin Davis. But maybe he was swayed by the production: there was certainly a virtuosic fit. The chorus was outstanding throughout, albeit in a similar fashion. It was splendid to have a Heldentenor of Burkhard Fritz's stature in the obscenely demanding title role. He rarely sounded totally at ease with the French, but it remained a virile, almost overpowering portrayal. Mija Kovalvska made a few slips as Teresa early on, but grew into the role, another challenge of extreme proportions. I must mention Kate Aldrich's feat of singing with great beauty and dramatic credibility Ascanio's aria, 'Mais qu'ai-je donc?', whilst having her head ludicrously severed from her robotic 'body'. I can only assume that this referred to the apprentice's fear that his master would soon lose his head. But whilst undeniably 'spectacle' of considerable order, it really added nothing other than confusion to the drama.

This work is intimately concerned with the artist and his relationship towards uncomprehending society. Here the relationship was in danger of being inverted. The fine cast and orchestra were not well served by this reversal.

Salzburg Festival: Berlioz concert, VPO/Riccardo Muti, 14 August 2007

Hector Berlioz

Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie, Op.14b

Gérard Depardieu (narrator)
Michael Schade (tenor)
Ludovic Tézier (baritone)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

Performances of Lélio would appear to happen roughly once in a blue moon. Since Berlioz stipulated that his sequel should be performed only after a performance of the Symphonie fantastique, it does not seem unreasonable to honour his request, given the rarity value of hearing Lélio at all. There are musical and programmatic relationships between the works, and Lélio would most likely seem simply odd without its elder sibling.

Short of engaging Sir Colin Davis, who remains hors concours amongst today's conductors of Berlioz, the pairing of Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic augured well, and so it turned out. Muti's is a relatively Classical Berlioz, although that may partly have been a product of the orchestra's identity. Yet whilst the musical line retained a Classical coherence throughout, this did not preclude Romantic fire, where necessary - as opposed to wherever possible. This was certainly the case at the climaxes of both works. Muti's Gluck - a composer of whose music he is indubitably the finest living conductor - sprang to mind, not inappropriately, given Berlioz's reverence for the eighteenth-century dramatic master.

The Symphonie's waltz owed its ebb and flow to a keen ear for orchestral colour and balance, and to perfectly judged rubato. If the VPO cannot waltz, then nobody can. The Scène aux champs can easily drag in the wrong hands; here there was no question of that. Instead, Berlioz showed himself a worth heir to the Beethoven of the Pastoral Symphony, albeit with colours that were all his - and the orchestra's - own. The English horn shone in its solo, and the kettledrums at the end (and in the following movement) could hardly have been more commanding in the perfection of their crucial crescendi and diminuendi. I was slightly surprised by the sheer weirdness of the sound of the muted horns at the beginning of the fourth movement. Those fabled Vienna horns clearly do not have to do Gemütlichkeit. And the Witches' Sabbath was duly riotous, Tricky rhythms, as throughout, were expertly handled, as were their harmonic implications, without ever sacrificing the necessary sense of abandon. The bells for once sounded just right: we were in a churchyard after all. Muti knew where the whole work was going right from the very start. This is an orchestral showpiece, but that should be a given, not an end. It is a symphony, which is what we heard, most impressively.

Lélio is, however, anything but a symphony. On the page it must seem a motley, indeed bizarre, collection of pieces, strung together by an equally strange narration. It needs an excellent performance - and probably needs the Symphonie too - to come off. I do not know whether the various participants had ever performed the work before; one would never have guessed that they had not. Depardieu proved a commanding and sensitive narrator: master of ceremonies might be a more appropriate term. What could so easily seem a rambling piece of outdated self-regard proved actually to be a fascinating summit of the strange world of French Romanticism. It was amusing to hear him tell the VPO that its players, having performed his Tempest fantasy, would now be ready to tackle more demanding works, for they impressed just as much as they had during the first part of the concert. The Vienna State Opera Chorus was wonderfully precise, and yet possessed the necessary weight for its great moments too. The soloists impressed, especially the versatile Michael Schade. Horatio's fisherman's song (a setting of his text by the composer/narrator) was delectable. Staging and lighting were well conceived. I had wondered to start with whether it would have been preferable to have the musicians hidden from view until the Shakespeare fantasy, as was Berlioz's wish, rather than veiled, but the latter course worked well - and added to the phantasmagorical effect. This performance made a very strong case indeed for more frequent performance. Let us hope that this case will be heeded.

Salzburg Festival: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim, 13 August 2007

Beethoven - Overture: Leonore, no.III, Op.72
Schoenberg - Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Tchaikovsky - Symphony no.6 in B minor, Op.74, 'Pathétique'

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The last time I heard this orchestra and conductor was in London, for a concert in memory of Edward Said, the orchestra's co-founder and Barenboim's comrade-in-arms. That was an extremely moving occasion, on which I had thought that, insofar as it is possible to put politics aside - a big 'insofar', given the circumstances - the performances had little to fear by comparison with those given by many professional orchestras, and in terms of commitment surpassed a good number thereof. This concert, however, was something quite different: something that I cannot imagine any sentient being would ever forget.

The third Leonore Overture received one of the best readings I have heard of it, certainly since Furtwängler. How rare is the opportunity to hear an orchestra of this size - no fewer than eighteen first violins, with other sections proportioned accordingly - perform Beethoven nowadays. Indeed, I do not think I ever have 'in the flesh'. The depth of tone, above all in the burnished strings but not only there, put me immediately in mind of Furtwängler's Berlin Philharmonic, as did the profundity of commitment from all concerned. The woodwind shone, the brass imposed, the kettledrums thrilled. And then, of course, there was the trumpet call. There was never to be any question that this meant something more than words, more than politics, more than any mortal, could ever express. The stunned silence of the hall, as its echoes resounded, spoke more truly than any politician could ever imagine. The quality of freedom is not strained, as Beethoven knew only too well. So did his performers.

All three works may have been said to boast a Furtwängler connection - although this may have been quite accidental: many works do, after all. It was the last century's greatest conductor, nevertheless, who conducted the first performance of this masterpiece by that century's greatest composer. Card-carrying Schoenbergian though I may be, ardent admirer of the Variations though I may be, this performance was nothing less than a total revelation of the work's riches and its great dramatic sweep. No recorded performance I had heard, whether by Karajan, Gielen, Boulez, Rattle, even Mitropolous, prepared me for the intensity of this reading. It is so easy to stereotype conductors' readings of works, often before one has even heard them, so that one could talk of Boulez's clarity and coolness, Karajan's glossiness, etc., etc. Much of this talk is utterly worthless. What I should say here is that it had everything: clarity of line and yet dramatic propulsion, a well-nigh perfect balance between horizontal and vertical elements, a conductor and orchestra who played it as though their lives depended upon it but also as if they had been playing it together for years - which, of course, they had not. Brahms, Wagner, and Mahler loomed large of course, as did Bach, but this was a performance which took Schoenberg upon his own terms. It did not sound 'like' anyone but him, and was all the better for it. If this partnership can work such wonders - and I use the term as much theologically as in any other manner - with the Schoenberg Variations, then it really ought to turn to Webern, and indeed to the notoriously hermetic Stravinsky Aldous Huxley Variations. We should probably soon wonder what all the fuss had been about. Never, I should wager, has the Finale's initial 'BACH' statement sounded so triumphant, and this was owed as much to its perfect placing within the whole as to the beguiling orchestral sonorities.

Furtwängler conducted a celebrated performance of the Tchaikovsky symphony, of course, but there was no especial kinship here, other than something we should not hesitate to call greatness. If anything, Barenboim and his orchestra sounded closer to Mravinsky and the old Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. This may have had something to do with the Russian influence on string playing to which Barenboim referred in a programme interview, but that cannot have been the whole story, for the 'sound' was very different from that produced for the Beethoven and Schoenberg - and rightly so.

It seems almost otiose to have to say once again that structure and passion worked hand in hand, but this is far rarer than one might imagine. Each movement received telling characterisation, and wondrous colouring, allowing almost every instrument, let alone every section, to shine, an opportunity every instrument took. The way the downward scales of the 'cellos and basses evoked the pealing of bells was a very special experience indeed, but I could give similar examples for almost all of the orchestra. As in both of the previous works, there was no question of routine, even a routine at the highest technical level. Risks were taken, and paid off triumphantly, penetrating to the emotional and intellectual core - one should probably add biographical too - of the symphony. The March thrilled, as the giant orchestra hurtled towards the precipice. One could almost forgive the premature applause that followed. (In what may, I suspect, be a first, a similar thing had happened before the Finale of the Schoenberg. Barenboim had curtailed that immediately, for which we should all have been thankful.) The final movement's threnody was noble of sonority - such richness, and yet never for its own sake - and always heading towards that terrible final silence. There was nothing left to say and, despite the thunderous applause, there was to be no encore.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Der Schauspieldirektor/Bastien und Bastienne, 12 August 2007

Mozart: Der Schauspieldirektor/Bastien und Bastienne

12 August 2007, Salzburger Marionettentheater

Alfred Kleinhenz - Frank, der Schauspieldirektor
Radu Cojocariu - Buff, sein Assistent/Colas
Christiane Karg - Mlle Silberklang/Bastienne 1
Ina Schlingensiepen - Mme Herz/Bastienne 2
Bernhard Berchtold - M. Vogelsang/Bastien

Junge Philharmonie Salzburg
Elisabeth Fuchs (conductor)
Thomas Reichert (director)
Puppenspieler des Salzburger Marionettentheaters

The conceit of this charming production was to have the play being produced in Der Schauspieldirektor as Bastien und Bastienne, the former framing the latter. This resulted in two Bastiennes, who each sang half of the opera, by way of their Schauspieldirektor auditions. By programming live music at the Marionette Theater, this was a reversion to the theatre's former customary practice, before recordings took over. There was a good number of children at the performance, some quieter than others. Doubtless many enjoyed it, but I wondered whether the proceedings - without interval - might have been a bit long for some.

The spoken dialogue was all well done: clearly enunciated and acted well. The young singing cast complemented Alfred Kleinhenz in the only all-speaking role. Radu Cojocariu is clearly both an accomplished actor and a fine singer, as he showed in his dual role as the assistant Buff and the ersatz-magician, Colas. (He played himself on stage, rather than being represented by a puppet, adding an amusing element of physical interaction between humans and marionettes.) All parts were well taken, making reasonable allowances for the very occasional slip in the ladies' coloratura. They worked well in ensemble too, which is far from always the case with soloists; here there was a real sense of give and take, of listening to each other and responding.

The young Salzburg orchestra acquitted itself well too, under Elisabeth Fuchs. I rather feared the worst when, following a punchy Schauspieldirektor overture, its Bastien and Bastienne counterpart sounded somewhat emaciated. It need not actually sound 'like' the first movement of the Eroica, whatever the identity of their themes, but it should have sweetness and a certain dramatic drive at least. Thankfully, this was a rare exception, and particular highpoints came with Colas's nonsense aria, 'Diggi, daggi...' - singer and orchestra having fun and furthering the action in tandem - and with the later Schaupsieldirektor numbers.

The ultimate emphasis of the latter work is of course upon collaboration, not competition. Not forgetting the intricate, flawless manipulation of the puppets, this relatively modest production proved a fine example of how art, or indeed anything else, is thus best served. It is not always the most magnificent spectacles that proffer the finer result.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Prom 31: Brahms, Elgar, Strauss

5 August 2007

Brahms: Variations on a theme by Haydn, Op.56a
Elgar: Variations on an original theme ('Enigma')
Strauss: Oboe Concerto in D major
Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier

Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (conductor)

This concert should have been conducted by Daniele Gatti, but illness had caused him to withdraw, leaving Gennadi Rozhdestvensky to deputise. I could not help thinking that it might have been a different occasion without this intervention from Fate; nor could I help thinking that Rozhdestvensky would have been happier conducting Prokofiev, or some other music with which he was more closely associated. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is not London's finest, but I have heard it perform more than creditably under Gatti, in Mahler and Berg. Here, for much of the time, it did not.

The concert opened with a weak performance of the Brahms Variations on a theme by Haydn. (Brahms used this title, so I do not think we need modishly change it, now that we believe that Haydn composed neither the theme, nor the divertimento in which Brahms discovered it.) It was not perverse, as was the performance Sir Simon Rattle gave with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms a few years ago, when far too much was fussily underlined, or italicised, or both. However, the orchestra sounded lacklustre, and whilst certain variations received a degree of characterisation, others went for little, and there was almost no sense of forming part of a greater whole. It is not an easy thing to characterise and yet to integrate into a great symphonic sweep, yet the piece demands it. Furtwängler was able to do this, as have quite a few subsequent conductors, but it was not to be. Throughout, the strings, although hardly few in number, sounded faint and watery; that echt-Brahmsian dark-mahogany richness of tone was never to be heard. The final peroration sounded brighter, but when the most impressive things were a suitably rustic contrabasson and the sonorous ringing of the triangle, more than a little was amiss. Here, as elsewhere throughout the evening, members of the orchestra were sometimes alarmingly out of kilter with their colleagues.

The Enigma Variations were less lacklustre, though hardly memorable. This was not a typically 'English' reading. There is nothing wrong with that, for different perspectives can shed interesting light on well-known works, but it did not seem a fully considered alternative. Flashes of orchestral colour, often surprisingly brash, alternated with a great deal of run-of-the-mill playing. 'Nimrod' was deeply felt, an almost Beethovenian oasis of noble calm, but little of the rest lived up to its promise. The brass section acquitted itself very well, as it would whenever called upon throughout the night. Unfortunately, this served above all to highlight the shortcomings of the wishy-washy strings.

The second half was better. Perhaps Strauss was more Rozhdestvensky's thing, or perhaps he simply knew the pieces better. I am not quite sure that the latter was true, at least in the case of the Oboe Concerto. For whilst the ensemble was much improved, he seemed content to adopt an 'accompanying' role that seasoned Straussians such as Kempe or Karajan would never have considered. The orchestral woodwind provided its own piquant detail from time to time, but this was really the soloist's show. Suffice it to say that Alexei Ogrintchouk proved a very fine oboist - and a very fine musician. Ever attentive to the twists and turns of Strauss's often treacherously lengthy lines, his varied singing tone, aided by crafty yet concealed tonguing, lifted the evening's music-making to another level. This neo-Mozartian product of Strauss's fabled 'Indian summer' sounded like the lyrical successor to Daphne that it is, rather than a soloist's showcase. A pupil of Maurice Bourgue and already Principal Oboist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Ogrintchouk deserves to go far indeed.

A suite from Der Rosenkavalier ended the concert. Here, at last, the whole orchestra sounded more committed. If the strings hardly compared to those of Vienna, at least they sounded less grey. The leader, Clio Gould's solo was quite delectable; she had been poorly served by her colleagues for most of the concert. The brass once again and the percussion shone. The horns' coital whooping during the Overture truly sounded like the 'real thing'. Yet the selection was strangely made, and did not tally with the 1945 Suite Michael Kennedy delineated in the programme. It may have been that selection (possibly by Artur Rodzinski) minus the Presentation of the Rose and the excerpt from the Trio; at any rate, those moments of sweet repose were absent, lending the rather arbitrary progression of what remained an undue brashness. All in all, this was not an evening of triumph, save for that undoubtedly pertaining to Ogrintchouk.